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The Future of the Welfare State: Europeans are Counting on the EU

Across its 28 member states, the European Union features several different types of the welfare state. write Eric Thode and Katharina Barié. Yet citizens across Europe express a high level of agreement when asked about their views, hopes and expectations regarding social protection. Of particular importance here is the role to be played by the EU.

Europe’s citizens are worried about the delivery of benefits and services and the sustainability of the welfare state at home. Pensions and care for the elderly are noted as areas of particular concern. By contrast, the future of child care, education, vocational training and unemployment benefits are regarded with more optimism. Hopes are pinned on the EU taking on a more active role in pushing for socio-political reforms and ensuring financial solidarity between member states. These are the findings of a comparative opinion survey conducted in eight EU member states by seven European think tanks and foundations, including the Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Europe’s citizens express surprisingly similar views in the survey. Most respondents are pessimistic about the state of social protection in the year 2050. Across the board, fears about retirement and old-age pensions outweigh all other concerns. In each of the eight surveyed countries, 51 percent to 70 percent of respondents fear that the welfare state will not be able to guarantee pension payments by the year 2050. Between 40 percent and 63 percent believe elderly care is at risk, while 37 percent to 59 percent fear that unemployment benefits will not be sufficient in the future. Skepticism is much lower regarding health care (32% to 52%), child care (31% to 37%) and education and training (18% to 44%).
Increase contributions or reduce benefits?
Europe’s citizens are divided in their views about how to ensure social welfare benefits and services in the future. In one-half of the surveyed countries, a majority of citizens are willing to pay higher taxes and increase their social security contributions in order to maintain current levels of social protection. This is true for the fiscally strong states such as Finland (56%), the United Kingdom (50%) and Germany (48%). In the fiscally less stable countries, the majority of citizens prefer a reduction in benefits over an increase in contributions. This is the case in France (51%), Poland (49%), Portugal (47%), Belgium (47%) and Italy (43%).
The EU as citizens‘ advocate and guarantor of social protection
When it comes to ensuring standards of social protection, Europe’s citizens are counting on the EU. In each of the countries surveyed, a majority (63% to 86%) of respondents are in favor of the EU setting minimum standards of social protection to be met in every member state. A majority of respondents (52% to 78%) also expressed support for the EU to pressure individual member states to implement necessary reforms in this policy area. In addition, the EU should guarantee financial transfers from rich to poor member states. This idea finds support not only among citizens in fiscally weak net recipient EU member states, but also among those in net contributor states (Germany 62%, United Kingdom 54%). Experts at the Bertelsmann Stiftung are surprised by the high degree of consensus found across Europe, in particular regarding the EU’s role in social protection policy and expectations of the welfare state. Particularly noteworthy here are the high levels of support expressed in the United Kingdom – which is planning to hold a referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the EU – for the EU taking on a more active role in ensuring social policy.
Aart De Geus, Chairman and CEO of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, concludes: “Citizens across Europe have identified the challenges ahead for the welfare state. Given the effects of demographic change, their fears are focused primarily on social protection and services as they age. They want the EU to act as a strong partner in ensuring social security and solidarity. This is not about the EU replacing national social welfare policies, but acting instead to ensure the sustainability of social welfare systems and that necessary reforms are implemented, thereby preventing a race to the bottom in social protection among member states.”
The population’s support for a stronger role of the EU in socio-political affairs is also highlighted by another recentsurvey of the Bertelsmann Stifung on citizens’ overall expectations towards the EU. In this survey 60% of EU-citizens are in favour of a stronger social and economic integration of the European Union. 47% mention the reduction of social inequalities as one of the most urgent tasks of the EU.
Eric Thode and Katharina Barié both work for Bertelsmann Stiftung. The research for this article was undertaken by Bertelsmann Stiftung.
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